Saturday, 6 August 2016

Hilltops Alumni Game a hit on many levels

Hilltops RB Des Vessey (#27) runs against the alumni team defence.
    The old Transformers slogan of “More than Meets the Eye” is a fitting way to describe the Saskatoon Hilltops Alumni Game.
    For decades, the venerable Canadian Junior Football League franchise has hosted a clash with its alumni as part of the team’s training camp. It is used as key evaluator for Hilltops coaches to grade current players. The contest has some modified guidelines, but it is played mostly under CJFL rules.
    The game gives the current players a chance to interact and meet the former players that have come before them. The match also allows the Hilltops grads to renew bonds with their old club and see old teammates and friends they normally don’t get to see on a regular basis due to real life circumstances relating to work and family.
    In recent years, the game has kind of branched out to include various other members of the Saskatoon football community that have never played with the Toppers. It has become common place for the recent alumni squads to contain ringers that played for teams from the Canadian Interuniversity Sport ranks and the CJFL.
QB Jordan Walls fires a pass downfield for the current Hilltops.
    This is done to increase the toughness of the alumni team to give the current Hilltops a tougher challenge. When it comes down to it, the alumni game might be the most difficult game the current Toppers play all year.
    The old players have enjoyed the game so much that word has gotten out, and more volunteers are turning out for the alumni team in terms of both former Hilltops players and players from other post-secondary teams.
    When the 2016 alumni game was held on Thursday at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, a very powerful and deep alumni squad turned out to face a Hilltops squad that lost 16 players due to graduation from last year’s CJFL championship team and a small handful of other players to the CIS ranks.
    With the current Hilltops fielding squad that contained a number of recent 18-year-old high school grads against a squad of well-conditioned men, the alumni rolled to a 41-10 victory.
    Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant and his staff definitely received a lot of film they can use for evaluations and corrections. The veteran coaching staff realizes there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to get the current team playing at the very high standard the Hilltops program is used to performing in 70 years of existence. Saskatoon opens its regular season hosting the Winnipeg Rifles on Aug. 14 at 1 p.m. at SMF Field.
Two Hilltops defenders up end an alumni team receiver.
    With that said, Thursday’s game wasn’t all bad for the current Hilltops. A number of individuals put in good outings.
    Backup quarterback Jordan Walls threw the ball well all over the field. The alumni team defensive backs, who have tonnes of experience, said the third year signal caller was doing a great job moving defensive players around with his eyes creating openings for his receivers.
    It took a great play by Joel Lipinski, who is a former member of the University of Regina Rams and the Saskatchewan Roughriders, to get an interception off Walls.
    Receiver Jason Price looks ready to be a playmaker. He had some nice catches and the only touchdown the current Hilltops scored in the game. The Walter Murray Collegiate graduate was buried on the depth chart his first two seasons behind five standout pass catchers the Hilltops graduated a year ago.
Receiver Ryan Turple zips up field for the Hilltops.
    Possession receiver Ryan Turple also made some nice catches and wasn’t afraid to mix things up in traffic despite standing 5-foot-9 and weighing 160 pounds.
    On defence, Adam Benkic was flowed to the ball well and looks like he is going to take step another step forward after a strong campaign in 2015. Rookie cornerback Leif Larson from Lloydminster showed that he has lots of promise.
    The current Hilltops sat out a number of their veterans for the alumni game in order to spend more time evaluating others on the roster. Those that didn’t dress included star quarterback Jared Andreychuk, last year’s CJFL defensive player of the year and linebacker Cole Benkic and beast running back Logan Fischer.
    On the alumni side of things, Hilltops grads like quarterback Steve Bilan, linebacker Warren Muzika and receivers Kit Hillis and John Trumpy showed they can still have game. Current Hilltops vice-president Rod Janzen showed he could still boot the ball as both a punter and place kicker. Way back in 1997 as the Hilltops punter, Janzen averaged 53.6 yards a punt, which is still a CJFL regular season record.
    After the game, the former players retreated to a social function the Hilltops held on the patio and lounge of the new clubhouse complex at SMF Field. That provided a chance to visit with, reminisce and tell some old tales with various members of the team’s staff including legendary executive Don McDonald, who will be part of the 2016 class inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
Alumni team punter Rod Janzen gets set to boom the ball downfield.
    The former players - both Hilltops alumni and players from other programs - come away feeling they had a good time and were treated in a first-rate manner. While the former Toppers reconnect with their old club, the former players from other teams get an increased sense of belonging to a city they have made their working careers in. 
    As a spinoff, those players will be back to watch games, donate to things like the Hilltops scholarship program or convince the companies they work for to become team sponsors.
    When all is said in done, everyone wins when it comes to the Hilltops Alumni Game no matter what the result was on the scoreboard.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to